How Nobel Prize winners influenced heart transplant research

5 October 2015        

An image of surgeons carrying out heart surgery

The 2015 Nobel Prizes are announced this week. Every day Christie Norris from our Research Communications team will look at how the work of previous Nobel Prize winners has influenced our research. Today she looks at the success of the heart transplant.

Heart failure is a condition where the heart is too weak to pump enough blood around the body. It can develop as a result of many conditions such as inherited heart diseases, long-term high blood pressure or a heart attack. With no cure, a heart transplant is a revolutionary operation which can saves the lives of people with severe heart failure. 

A heart transplant involves replacing a diseased, failing heart with a healthy human heart from a donor. Building on the work of the 1912 Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel our scientists have drastically improved the success of the heart transplant and helped change lives for the better.

The perfusion pump

Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon and biologist, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912 for inventing the perfusion pump. The revolutionary glass pump helped preserve animal organs which were to be transplanted by mimicking their normal blood flow in the body. 

Following the invention of the pump, cardiopulmonary bypass, also called the heart-lung machine, was developed. This is a technique which takes over the work of the heart and lungs and maintains blood flow to the body during an operation. It is now used during many surgical procedures including heart transplants.

Influence on our research

Thanks to the perfusion pump and subsequent invention of the heart-lung machine, BHF Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub and fellow surgeon Sir Terence English dramatically improved the success rate of the heart transplant in the 1980s. Following their work, more than half of individuals with hearts transplanted ten years ago are leading full lives. Before this, poor outcomes of early operations made heart transplants a topic of immense controversy. 

When our Heart Matters team asked Sir Magdi Yacoub why he carries out his research, he said: “I have an innate desire to know new things, to perfect what we are doing, to evaluate new forms of treatment and to study and improve surgical techniques”. With Professor Yacoub’s passion, we can expect exciting things from the future of surgical research.

A life-saving transplant

At 23, Wendy from York was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle which alters how the heart functions. After being admitted to hospital in 2011, Wendy was told she had six to 12 weeks to live without a transplant. Thankfully, a donor heart became available and Wendy had the transplant she desperately needed. 

Since her recovery, Wendy has completed the BHF’s Heart of York bike ride twice and plans to take part again this year. Talking about her experience, she said: “It was a huge challenge, but it was wonderful to be able to do it, and to give back to the BHF. Look what organ donation can do. It doesn’t just save lives, it transforms them.”

Read Wendy's story in our Heart Matters magazine.

What’s next for heart transplant research?

Despite the success of heart transplants and the progress made thanks to Alexis Carrel’s pioneering work, patients must still take medication to prevent the body’s immune system rejecting the new heart. Unfortunately, these drugs can make some patients more vulnerable to illness. We are funding Dr Nicholas Jones and his team at the University of Birmingham to find ways to help prevent rejection and keep patients healthy following transplant. 

Help us to continue funding research to improve the treatment of heart failure.